Neil Francis Lennon
In some previous pieces I have reflected on past Celtic players, most of which have had happy memories for both player and fans alike, when I started to do this one, i was working along the same theme, but it changed to what I believe to be very sad reflection on bigotry and hatred, that Neil the player and the person, and who just wanted to live his childhood dream of playing for Celtic, instead was often forced to confront injury bigotry, and sectarian abuse.
Neil’s first visit to a Glasgow football club, strangely enough, was not to Celtic, but to their then arch rivals Rangers* (*now deceased) as he was invited at age 13 by manager Jock Wallace to Ibrox for training and coaching and to meet Jimmy Nicholl an Irish Internationalist.
Can you imagine if Rangers* had no anti-catholic signing policy, what might have been ? and Neil Lennon had ended up playing out of Ibrox. Do you think the personal assaults on him, or the threats, the bombs and bullets would ‘ever’ have happened (naw me neither).
Before he joined Leicester City, while with Crewe, Neil suffered a horrific spinal injury which required a back operation and forced him to wear a back brace and kept him out of football for 15 months. Neil had a piece of bone inserted at the base of his spine held in place with a piece of wire which is tied in a butterfly knot.
Martin O’Neill went to extraordinary lengths to sign Neil for Leicester, while Neil was at Crewe, and when Martin became manager of Celtic, he showed the same enthusiasm and tried several times to buy Neil from his old club Leicester. Martin knew he was a formidable player and told Celtic “Buy me Neil Lennon and I can assure you we won’t be getting turned over easily”.
Martin was to realise, very quickly, exactly what he needed to do, if he was to get the better of the huge, (now known to have been illegal) spending power of Rangers*.
In December 2000 Martin finally got his man and Neil traveled to Glasgow following his transfer fee of £5.7 million (not bad business for Leicester who had acquired Neil for £750 thousand pounds).
Neil was a talented gritty midfielder, who played in a more defensive holding role, he was a talent that could be appreciated by Celtic fans who knew he was key in the Celtic side, every great side needs a player like Neil to do the hard work that allows space for the others to take the glory. Neil never complained about his midfield role, in fact he excelled in it, and just got on with the job and let others take the plaudits.
I suppose the big question of his move at the time was, could he play in the same midfield as Paul Lambert as both their styles seemed similar, but it worked out well, which allowed both to either play or have their day, this also allowed the likes of Stilian Petrov, Lubo Moravcik and Alan Thompson to express their own creative talents.
Lurgan born Neil had been a lifelong Celtic fan and he made absolutely no attempt to hide his joy from the Scottish media at joining the hoops, unfortunately for Neil this is where the hatred began.
Firstly the reaction of the Dundee fans, who actually booed Neil throughout the warm up, Neil had not even, as yet, kicked a ball for Celtic in earnest, yet here was the start of a lifelong hatred of Neil, and sadly, this routine was to be endured by him in grounds throughout Scotland during his period at Celtic.
No one in Celtic’s history has ever been victimised more than Neil Lennon by other supporters, racists and bigots.
In his first match for Northern Ireland in 2001 after moving to Celtic, Neil has his every touch booed by fans at Windsor Park, it was absolutely shameful behaviour from his countrymen, Neil was boo-ed for no other reason than, simply because, he played for Celtic. Neil was taken off at half-time by manager Sammy McIlroy.
In my opinion McIllroy handled that situation badly.
Before Northern Ireland’s home game against Cyprus in 2002, Neil and his family’s lives are threatened by someone claiming to be a member of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, Neil was due to captain his country for the first time. Neil is then forced to pull out of the game after 40 caps for his country.
Neil is sent off in 2003 in a game against Rangers* in the League Cup Final at Hampden.
Neil is subjected to sectarian abuse in 2003 from 2 men after they spot him in his car, They spat on his car and rocked it. When Neil got out to appeal for calm, he was assaulted by both men.
A Rangers* fan tries to force Neil off the road in 2004 on the M8, while making gestures and threatening him.
In November 2004, Neil is subjected to a full 90 minutes of horrible sectarian and racist abuse by Rangers* fans, leading to Martin O’Neil at the end of the game, defiantly taking Neil back on to the pitch with his arm around Neil, to show his backing and support for his player. Martin O’Neill thoroughly condemned the Rangers* fans behavior three days later in Barcelona, Rangers* would later be sanctioned by EUFA for bigotry.
Neil is again sent off in 2005 for confronting referee Stuart Dougal at the end of a Rangers* game at Ibrox.
In his autobiography, Man and Bhoy, in 2007 Neil reveals his battles with depression.
A Rangers* fan is jailed in 2013 for posting the message: “Get mair bullets and bombs sent to Neil Lennon boys.
February 2014: Neil is forced to leave the League Cup semi-final between Aberdeen and St Johnstone early when Aberdeen thugs hurl missiles and abuse at him.
There is no other reason that Neil suffered these and many many more acts of racist and sectarian abuse, except that simply, he was born a Roman Catholic.
I have not listed all of the shameful attacks on Neil, just a sample of the abuse that this brave man has had to face while trying to enjoy what he loved doing, playing football for a club he has loved all his life.
No one should have been subjected to horrendous actions such as these while trying to do their job, or while trying to do something they love. In many countries it just would not be tolerated and would have been stamped out at the very first instance, we however still live in a very backward country where sectarianism and bigotry has always been rife, and disgracefully the problem is never confronted by the people who are actually paid large salaries from the public purse to do so.
Neil’s spell as Celtic Interim Manager was not a simple task either when he took over from Tony Mowbray in 2010, he was a rookie manager and again, was never going to be dealt any fair hand by the Scottish media, but he did eventually get Celtic at some stage playing great football, yes we also had some horror moments, losing to Kilmarnock in the league cup final and then to Hearts in the Scottish cup Semi final, to be fair though players must share the blame in some respects. If I’m being honest there were also some horror European moments (Ajax away) then some sublime European moments Barcelona home and away (bearing in mind Barcelona were considered at this time to be the top team on the planet).
Throughout all of his time with Celtic Neil endured Bullets, death threats, bombs and assaults. The one eyed media always ready to vent on Neil, because of his crime of being honest, and speaking out when someone had to, as severely criticised referees.
All in all at the end of his first managerial stint few could argue that the football became entertaining, along the way he learned, he signed a few good players such as VVD Hooper Samaras, Izaguirre, Ledley, Lustig, Wanyama, he wanted to bring back The Thunder’ to Celtic, I believe to an extent he managed to do that, and did so with a limited budget. Let’s never forget most of his achievements were done whilst being attacked, given death threats, and been sent bombs or bullets or hanging effigys . Simply because he was a catholic from Northern Ireland playing for Celtic or working for Celtic Football Club. Neil stood up to it all.
Many Celtic supporters, may have rather had a different manager take over after Brendan Rodgers did his moonlight flit to Leicester, rather than Neil.
My personal opinion is Neil came in when a lot of others may have been too afraid to step in for fear of losing the treble treble, or the nine, after Brendan’s long run of winning, then some may not have wanted to be curtailed by our [cough] Director of football [cough] yes you Pedro, however Neil showed character in stepping in, he’s never been one to show fear of taking any task head on.
Neil is, above all else in his life, a very courageous person.
He knows what it is to win, and have a desire to win, and when he doesn’t win he hurts, like a fan hurts, and I for one am glad we have someone who loves the club as much as we do, and is not afraid, as we go for the unprecedented Ten
We Are all Neil Lennon. YNWA
If you gave me £12m I couldn’t guarantee finding someone with a winning mentality like Neil Lennon’s. – Gordon Strachan in 2012
Political, cultural and civic Scotland has yet to explain its failure to protect Neil Lennon. – Journalist Kevin McKenna
I was a footballer, treated as a public hate figure, merely because I was a Catholic who wore the green and white hoops of Celtic. – Neil Lennon
John Hartson gave the ball away against Liverpool a couple of times, So I shouted “keep a hold of the ball”. John turned around and said to me “Shut up or I’ll rip your head off !!”. A couple of minutes later I passed the ball to John he shrugged off Sammy Hyppia, played a one two with Henrik and crashed a shot into the top corner of the net. That goal was the single best moment for me in the whole Seville year, I loved seeing big John turn to our fans smiling and knowing that Liverpool were not coming back from that defeat. – Neil Lennon
The only rational thing Steven Gerrard has said this week is that they played Celtic the best team in the country on Sunday. – Neil Lennon
He was a player who sometimes flew under the radar. He worked hard for everybody, and it was essential to have someone like that on the team. – Lubo Moravcik
Lastly from the brain of britain himself: Yesterday’s result was a gold star in Neil’s feather. – Alex Rae (who else)